Widening definitions of health conditions have the potential to affect millions of people and should only occur when there is strong evidence of benefit. In the last version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the DSM-5 Committee changed the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) age of onset criterion in two ways: raising the age of symptom onset and removing the requirement for symptoms to cause impairment. Given concerns about ADHD prevalence and treatment rates, we aimed to evaluate the evidence available to support these changes using a recently developed Checklist for Modifying Disease Definitions.
We identified and analysed research informing changes to the DSM-IV-TR ADHD age of onset criterion. We compared this evidence to the evidence recommended in the Checklist for Modifying Disease Definitions.
The changes to the DSM-IV-TR age of onset criterion were based on a literature review (publicly available as a 2 page document with online table of included studies), which we appraised as at high risk of bias. Estimates of the change in ADHD prevalence resulting from change to the age of onset criterion were based on a single study that included only a small number of children with ADHD (n = 68) and only assessed the impact of change to the age component of the criterion. No evidence was used by, or available to the Committee regarding the impact on prevalence of removal of the requirement for impairment, or the effect of the criterion changes on diagnostic precision, the prognosis of, or the potential benefits or harms for individuals diagnosed by the new, but not old criterion.
The changes to the age of onset criterion were based on minimal research evidence that suffered from either high risk of bias or poor applicability. The minimal documentation available makes it difficult to judge the rigor of the process behind the criterion changes. Use of the Checklist for Modifying Disease Definitions would assist future proposed modifications of the DSM ADHD criteria, provide guidance on the studies needed to inform potential changes and would improve the transparency and documentation of the process.